What do we desire from our lives and our work? In October of 2023, I participated in a debate at my college, Western Carolina University, regarding whether gender affirming care for minors should be banned. When it was my turn, I mostly stuck to the facts. I cited medical organizations, doctors, and meta-analyses. Though we were arguing for the same conclusion, my professor, Dr. Sean Mulholland, took a different approach. The first words out of his mouth were, fittingly for an economist, from Adam Smith. But, perhaps surprising to some, from Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work on moral philosophy, “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.”

One aspect of Smith that I find praiseworthy is how his thought applies to an infinite number of situations. Dr. Mulholland emphasized self-expression and individualism through affirming one’s gender identity as a Smithian idea. While listening to Brent Orrell on The Great Antidote podcast with Juliette Sellgren, I noticed a similar idea applied to work.

Orrell and Sellgren discuss the importance of finding intrinsic worth and value in one’s work, and how to do so in a moving and shaking economy rife with demographic and technological change. Orrell emphasizes that young people’s ambitions should not be pushed aside just for financial benefit. Orrell wants to help young people answer what he calls “the drunk uncle question.”

This is the question that you get around the Thanksgiving table when your uncle asks you what you’re studying. If it’s not a technical field like computer science, his follow-up question is going to be, “Well, what are you going to do with that?” As if that were some sort of a knockdown question, like if you can’t connect your interests directly to an economic outcome, somehow, they aren’t worthwhile.

Orrell sees this attitude damaging the prospects of the younger generation of Americans. He wants them to find work that’s fulfilling and beneficial to society. In a Speaking of Smith post titled, Vocation: A Cure for Burnout Orrell and David Veldran make the point that we should welcome creative destruction through technological advancement, precisely because this transitions work to be more vocational, and less monotonous. The key to a productive distribution of labor is allowing workers to find jobs that excite their creativity, “[These jobs] tend to be more fulfilling, energizing, and more compatible with our desire for dignity in work.” Paychecks and purpose go hand in hand to Orrell.

This may seem like an inconsequential concern, but Orrell points out how refusing to fulfill the innate human need to be understood undermines one’s individuality and sends the message that they are not worthy of understanding in the first place. This may cause individuals to choose work that is not optimal for them and harms the division of labor through incorrect specialization. The economy is deprived of highly productive English literature professors or anthropologists, for the trade-off of subpar computer scientists. 

In another Speaking of Smith post, Beyond Being Lovely, Shal Marriot phrases Smith’s quote as, “the desire to be understood and to be worthy of that understanding.” To me, Orrell’s issue with “the drunk uncle question,” and the pervasive view of work as separate from self-actualization reflects this. 

Disrespecting human dignity is harmful to all except a very small number of successful rent seekers. Orrell understands this and knows that there is nothing efficient about dismissing human dignity. Orrell sees a world where the core value of work is acknowledging humanity.

Orrell’s advice and prescriptions for the future of work are valuable and pertinent to a changing and progressing American economy. But it’s more difficult to apply these ideas to those without a suitable level of socioeconomic privilege. Yes, America is the most economically prosperous nation in the world, and incentivizing those who have the means to pursue what they love is beneficial to us all. But poverty is still real and limiting. So is systemic discrimination towards marginalized people, particularly towards non-white and LGBTQIA+ people. We should take care that the luxury of pursuing personal ambitions isn’t only for the white and the rich. 

This is not permanent. The great enrichment includes hundreds of millions of people striving for self-actualization instead of merely scrapping for survival. As Orrell states in his article, “The Common Ground of Human Dignity,” “The American story in particular has been one of a gradual expansion of principles and laws that protect the dignity and rights of the person.” This expansion upon the principles of individuality, mutual respect, and the will to understand is crucial not only to economic growth throughout an innovative and changing economy, but also are necessary elements of social progress and fulfilling the American vision.


Kevin Lavery is a student at Western Carolina University studying economic analysis and political science and was a 2023 Summer Scholar at Liberty Fund.